Jacques Maritain Center: Ethics Without God?

Comment on
John M. Rist, Real Ethics.
Rethinking the Foundations of Morality
Cambridge - New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Armando Fumagalli
Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore - Milano

First of all, I would like to point out that I agree with the main theses of the book; especially, the thesis that the only coherent position in moral philosophy is realist and theistic; and, though I must say I'm not in a strict sense a specialist in moral philosophy, I also agree with most -- or should I say almost every one -- of the particular arguments stated in the important and thoughtful book by Professor Rist.

The impossibility of having an ethics without a metaphysics is an important point of the book that should not pass unnoticed. Rist stresses the importance of giving a foundation to rules and of examining the reason why we consider rationality a condition of goodness. He argues that, in order to qualify an act as good, it is not sufficient to refer to its conformity with rationality. We need also to ground the relation between rationality and human nature, and to answer the question why rationality should be an end in itself.

It is also worth mentioning the acknowledgement of the importance of the platonic and neoplatonic tradition about Unity. Good is what gives unity to the subject and what goes against the tendency to division and multiplicity that affects all finite creatures. I would like to emphasise especially the place of love in this moral proposal. Without any "romantic" magniloquence, but many times and in crucial points of the book, professor Rist argues that love is essential to man's morals. He comes to this conclusion not only through the Thomistic view according to which virtues are modes of love, but also by showing that, in many fields of life, strict justice is not sufficient because it does not reach the specific personal level at which every human being has a legitimate desire to be considered (see, e.g., p.130). Love is the unifying force that goes against tendencies to self-destruction and against all forms of division that affect human life.

Now, having declared my admiration for professor Rist's ethical approach, I think that it is more convenient for me to leave a detailed discussion of specific ethical arguments and points of the book to the ethical specialists that are in this seminar. I will use my specific professional expertise mostly to comment on some other points that I much appreciated when I read Real Ethics and are closer to my field, which is semiotics and the narrative of cinema and television.

In particular, I would like to focus on the relation between moral reasons and their social acceptance, and on the problems of making moral arguments reach people who are not moral specialists but are the most part of every society.

As it is well known, in the few last decades some currents of moral theory have come back to stress the importance of narratives for the moral education of a community. The main reference is to Alasdair MacIntyre, but also to Charles Taylor and -- although I do not agree with some consequences of her moral view that she considers very important -- , Martha Nussbaum, as well as to many other philosophers. In Italy, we have had some very important books by Giuseppe Abbà{1}, but I should mention at least the theological research of Servais Pinckaers{2} in the French language, and among German philosophers -- maybe with some differing stances, but with substantial agreement in some main points -- the fascinating works by Robert Spaemann{3}.

Despite not making it the object of specific thematic reflections, Real Ethics shows an important and vivid awareness of the problem of the distinction between on one hand the élite, who has access to the pure intellectual reflection, who teaches at Universities, writes for journals, magazines and newspapers, and who inspires cinema and television, and on the other hand all the other components of society (the big majority) who are de facto inspired and guided by this intellectual and media élite. We must remember also that normally, in every developed society, the majority of people is greatly under-represented in media, since this media élite has a strong role of gate-keeping. Media are almost everywhere the expression of culturally radical minorities that own the access to the elaboration of the contents of media and tend to represent and express themselves much more than other groups of their societies.

Maybe among the most impressive pages of Real Ethics are those dedicated to the crisis and the ethical insufficiency of democracy as reduced only to a system of vote, which is not supported by a high degree of information, participation, and concern at every level of social and public life. Let me quote from page 248: "So long as we have free choice, we believe that we can achieve our status as human beings; so long as we live in a 'democratic' society, we believe we have the structure within which we can be 'free.' If choice is the idolatry of private life, democracy has become the idolatry of public life." The following page gives a severe, but I think not exaggerated, description of the risk of some of today societies: "For it is to be noted that some of the goals of Hitler, Stalin and other promoters of man remade can be achieved in a more anodyne but equally mindless society, the more comfortable totalitarianism of egalitarian, because rootless and envious individualism. It is no accident that such individualism, coupled with ignorance and contempt for the past, can flourish under some versions of the 'democratic' umbrella; indeed such characteristics may become the illusory Three Pillars of any future 'democracy' itself: driven by class divisions, devastated by crime, corrupt in its political dealings and judicial processes, massively philistine and illiterate (though led by a highly articulate, educated and sophisticated élite), tasteless and brutal in its entertainment -- and self -- devoted to 'freedom' viewed as choice. The United States has moved far in this direction and Canadians, being next in line and now comparatively unprotected, have much to fear beyond their present anxieties about separatism" (p.249).

I think that this big and impressive division between the intellectual élite and the vast majority of people, a division not always fully considered by intellectuals -- who normally live with, and are friends and relatives of, other intellectuals -- has some interesting consequences that should be considered:

1. Some moral problems that we tend to consider universal are actually specific to 2-3% of the population that constitutes this élite.

2. At the same time, this élite is responsible for the construction of the imaginary landscape -- l'imaginaire, as French philosophers and sociologists called it in the Sixties -- that affect 95% of the population. It affects it with various degrees of deepness and effectiveness, depending on how much the stories, values, and characters differ from the traditional credo of a community, on how long this kind of construction has been represented, etc. For example, the large acceptance of homosexuality in most European and north-American societies is the result of more or less ten years of strong propaganda in favour of the homosexual lifestyle. This lifestyle, -- after some years of preparation in art film and in selected intellectual circles -- has reached, firstly, mainstream cinema and, secondly, television -- beginning in 1993 with the film Philadelphia, a masterpiece of ideological rhetoric and propaganda, and then with In and Out and many other movies that pushed forward this agenda.

3. As I just mentioned, the moral attitudes of the intellectual élites reach most of the population when they are mediated, but I should better say embodied, in stories with passion, emotions, and big characters: namely, with that profound dimension that turns them into powerful and effective metaphors of life{4}. This field is open to the good and the evil, to the right and the wrong. Although I am convinced, as Aristotle in his Rhetoric{5}, that truth has a force in itself, and that a true argument is, by its nature, stronger than a false one, I have to say that unfortunately false arguments have found many very skilful rhetoricians in the last decades -- especially in cinema, TV fiction and the media -- , while the true ones seem to have more difficulties in finding good spokespersons.

4. I am convinced that today most people in the whole world -- including North-American and European countries -- have still a strong sense of the natural values of life (those expressed in the Ten Commandments), and that an intense anti-education made by the media can have an important influence, but not sweep away the basics of people's moral sense completely. In Italy we had a very intense press campaign in favour of abortion in the Seventies, that declared it simply a woman's right, but now that the campaign is no more active and intense as in those years, the natural truth of abortion as a trauma for the woman and a destruction of a new life is coming out more and more. Looking for evidence from other aspects of social life, what is interesting is also that if you read the list of the world cinema box office in terms of moral values, the top places -- that is the movies that have gained most at the box office -- are held by movies that have a view of life in substantial -- and sometimes in strong and explicit -- accordance with a theistic and realist ethics{6}. I should mention not only Titanic, which would need some explanations and also some distinctions, but also The Lord of the Rings (adaptation of a great Christian novel), Harry Potter, Spider Man, Forrest Gump, etc. The problem is that this tradition and this acceptance is being little by little menaced by the products of the élite: remaining in the field of cinema, we can remember some movies which have not been big hits in American box office, but are big hits in some secularised and more intellectualised European countries, like American Beauty and the recent Oscar-prized The Hours, which contains a sort of elegy of suicide. We could also mention some TV shows that are targeted mainly to audiences of young cultured professionals, like the series Friends, that reaches specific audiences of young bright people all over the world with its nihilist approach{7}.

Considering this division between the large traditional audience, and what is being proposed to young intellectuals, I think that it can be useful to tell you also that in recent years we have seen in Italy that the top TV shows have been stories adapted from the Bible, or biographical stories of saints, like that of Padre Pio, a Franciscan recently canonised by the Pope, or of the blessed Pope John XXIII. They were excellent products, very well written, but they have reached the impressive amount of more than a 40% share and in the case of the biopic of Pope John XXIII more than 50% share, in a country where there are six main channels which divide the audience every night. This TV fictions have shown in an almost shocking, but extremely clear way that if you are able to tell a story well, people are eager to hear of God, of prayer, of sin and forgiveness, of confession and holy Mass, etc. We will come back to this question in a few minutes.

Going back to Rist's book, I think that today, one of the main challenges of contemporary mentality to a realist and theistic vision of morals, is the position that makes the choice an absolute. It is a minoritarian position in the lives of our contemporaries, but it is gaining force and effectiveness through a declination that has a great appeal today: it is the absolutization of the figure of the artist, as the new exceptional individual, as the new saint, as the man who has such a special sensitivity that it allows him to see indefectively what is worth doing and living. In Real Ethics this view is shortly, but perfectly described in p. 190. I cannot diffuse myself in describing the characteristics and the roots of this mentality, but I think that you all know the reflections by Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self and also in a much shorter book that has been published with the two different titles of The Malaise of Modernity and The Ethics of Authenticity{8}. Taylor shows very well how deep the roots of this mentality are, and he gives reasons to think that it is going to be more and more diffused. Also I must refer to the work by an English scholar, Colin Campbell, who in a very suggestive study, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism{9}, stresses -- with great subtlety -- the roots of this mentality as a fruit of an exasperated imagination that nurtures bohemian ideals, and at the same time prepares -- as a sort of nemesis of destiny -- individuals who dream of being artist (and live that ideal in the night time and in the week -- end) while they are completely integrated in a bourgeois and technocratic system of organisation of work. How could we not recognise in this description the life of most of the "yuppie" élites of many European countries and -- for what I know -- of urban Americans?

Professor Rist has some important arguments against the glorification of choice as an end in itself in p. 200 and following. I think that they are very important, and that they address a main issue in our society, and especially in the élites. I think it is very important to awake people and to show, as Rist does in p. 221 of his book, that the absolutization of choice can lead to such extremes as suicide and homicide. It is not by chance that I was mentioning the film The Hours and its vision of suicide as a very revealing example of the direction of some "artistic" mentality.

But, as we must arrive at a conclusion, let us now see very briefly four possible consequences of what we have just been recalling.

a. First of all, if we want to obtain that a moral view could reach society in a shorter amount of time than the centuries that normally are necessary to have the elaboration of a moral philosopher reach the wider part of a civilisation, I think it would be extremely useful to be closer to the studying and elaboration of stories. Most great moral systems (included the Christian ones) have come to us through stories -- real stories like that of Jesus, the Prophets and the Apostles, and allegories and parables like those that the Lord told us in the Gospel -- , and only in a second moment people have reflected on them and have shaped a set of dogmas and the theoretical synthesis of the various catechisms. I think that, for us that are Christian, it is very important never to forget that the abstract and systematic way of thinking and of transmitting wisdom and attitudes is a de facto always minoritarian -- very important, but minoritarian -- dimension, a level attainable only by a certainly crucial, but numerically very thin élite. The incredible (before it appeared: ab esse ad posse valet illatio) amplitude and velocity of the spreading of a narrative phenomenon like that of Harry Potter should help us to see how fast a narrative with its characters and values can reach people all over the world today. This phenomenon could help us also in considering -- for Christian intellectuals, for Christian universities, for men who think their duty to promote a vision of life according to Christian values -- the importance to feel responsible to promote a free but profound elaboration of passionate and modern stories that embody a transcendent vision of life also in the field of popular narratives (that means literature, comics, cinema, TV fiction, etc.); I am thinking of stories that show -- as the great literature by Dostoevskij or Shakespeare -- the greatness and weakness of man, his being a creature of God, his desire of the good, and the destruction that evil brings to human lives.

b. Secondly, I think that for moral reflection itself, it could be of great interest to have a confrontation with the theoretical and practical reflection about the work of constructing stories, especially with the treasure of professional skills and practical wisdom that we can find in people who work for mainstream cinema. Normally the interviews with great screenwriters that one can find in professional magazines like Creative Screenwriting, as well as the books that collect interviews or experiences of these professionals are truly -- from an anthropological and moral point of view -- of great interest{10}. We could see the stories for the broad audience as some sort of condensed moral experiences, and if we are able to analyse the audience's reaction in terms of acceptance (up to enthusiasm) or refusal, we can see them as some sort of moral experiment, something like a case study of applied ethics. Sure, we must try to understand the force of the story isolating it from other non-narrative elements, such as direction, acting, music, etc. But I think that it is very interesting to try to understand the reason of the enormous success and profound impact of movies like Forrest Gump or Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind or Monsters, Inc., Gladiator or Erin Brockovic. In the heart of every story there is a moral dilemma, and normally it is not an easy dilemma between a clear good and an evident evil, but some subtle dilemma between two non-compatible goods or between two forms of evil, a situation in which the character has to choose what seems the lesser evil for him. For these and other reasons, I think that to be introduced in the reflection about the great popular narratives of our time could be really of great interest. The spine of the story is a moral dilemma, it is the problem of a character that we love and appreciate that has to respond to a difficult situation: this is a common truth in which there is a full agreement among people who write the great stories for cinema as well as those who teach to do it{11}.

c. The third point is in relation with what professor Rist says in p. 246-247 of his book, reflecting about the always provisional and fragile unity of societies like that of the United States or of Canada, with their different modes of integration. Every result of unity, and of cooperation in a specific society is always the result of an education that goes deep into the feelings of people, and helps them to understand, and to feel why they are a country, which are the values that they are grounded in, etc. I think that the strong confrontation with some errors and extremism of a part of the Islam tradition, must help us to see that every state of complex and peaceful society is possible because people share a vision of human nature, a vision of life. So, the result is a strong confirmation of the importance of education, through the great stories, as we have just been saying a few moments ago, but also through every institution and medium that modern societies have found to transmit the values of a culture. Before teaching the skills for a specific job or profession, we must transmit the values that are the foundation of our community and of our society.

d. The fourth and last point is a calling to an enhancement of some specific aspects of modern sensibility. The young generations are growing with a very intense training on stories: they watch thousands of stories on television and in cinema, and one of the effects of this intensive training is the capability of increasing the answer of empathy to the problems of people. The new generations are more sensitive to the problems of other people and in general of every person, but they normally have no clues to give real answers and solutions to the dilemmas of life. They have sympathy but they are not capable of showing the way to reach a real good human life. In this context, I deem as very important the personalist (but metaphysically founded) turn that has been given by Pope John Paul II to the approach to moral philosophy and moral theology. Starting from his book of 1960, Love and Responsibility, he has tried to understand moral problems, in a context of a realist -- in Rist's sense -- moral, from the point of view of the moral agent. This shift in the point of view -- that is not casually related with the long and deep affection and intellectual training of the young Karol Wojtyla in literature and drama: a passion that had made him decide to be a professional literate and a man of theatre -- is greatly sympathetic with contemporary mentality because it helps to show clearly and effectively how moral solutions are real solutions to the drama of life. They are not the superimposed laws of a detached and lonely Sovereign, but -- as John Rist says in his great book -- the proposals of a loving God that wants our good. I think that a profound acquaintance with the theological reflection by John Paul II can help us to see ways of making our moral view more friendly and acceptable to our contemporaries. This acquaintance can also help us to move on to another of the points stated by professor Rist, namely the insufficiency of justice and the necessity of love. We all know that bishop Wojtyla was one of the main authors of the central pages of one of the crucial documents of the Second Vatican Council, the anthropological synthesis that we can find in Gaudium et Spes. In n. 24 we can read that "man, who is the only creature in the earth which God willed for itself (sola creatura est quam Deus propter seipsam voluerit), cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself (plene seipsum invenire non posse nisi per sincerum sui ipsius donum)". I think that we have room to find consequences of this anthropological thesis of the Vatican Council; it helps us to go deep into, and I hope to develop, John Rist's calling to an ethics where knowledge of reality as a gift from the loving God opens to the intelligent love that is the essence of all moral action.

{1} See Giuseppe Abbà, Felicità, vita buona e virtù. Saggio di filosofia morale, Las, Roma 1989; Giuseppe Abbà, Quale impostazione per la filosofia morale? (Ricerche di filosofia morale - 1), LAS - Roma 1996. Abbà is very attentive to the American debates in ethics.

{2} See especially Servais Th. Pinckaers, o.p., Les sources de la morale chrétienne, Éditions Universitaires, Fribourg 1985; it. transl. Le fonti della morale cristiana, Ares, Milano 1992 ; Servais Th Pinckaers., o.p., La morale catholique, Les Éditions du Cerf/Fides, Paris 1991; it. transl. La morale cattolica, Edizioni Paoline, Milano 1993.

{3} See Robert Spaemann, Moralische Grundbegriffe, H.C. Beck, München 1986; it. transl. Concetti morali fondamentali, Piemme, Casale Monferrato 1993. Robert Spaemann, Glück und Wohlwollen, Ernst Klett, Stuttgart 1989; it. transl. Felicità e benevolenza, Vita e pensiero, Milano 1998.

{4} For the story as a metaphor of life see the thoughtful reflection of Robert McKee, Story: substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting, HarperCollins, New York 1997. McKee says in a more clear, profound and effective way something that we could find also in Paul Ricoeur, and also in some very interesting works of Clive S.Lewis, such as some essays collected in Clive Staples Lewis, On This and Other Worlds, 1982, Fount, London 2000.

{5} Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1355a.

{6} For what I know, the first who showed this truth has been Michael Medved in his very influential book, Hollywood vs. America, Harper Collins, New York 1993.

{7} For a brilliant analysis of the anthropological content of some popular American TV series, see Paolo Braga, Dal personaggio allo spettatore, Angeli, Milano, in print (2003).

{8} Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self. The making of modern identity, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1989; Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity, or The Ethics of Authenticity, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1991.

{9} Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Blackwell, Oxford 1987.

{10} See, for example, Joel Engel (ed.), Screenwriters on Screenwriting, Hyperion, New York 1995, and Joel Engel (ed.), Oscar-Winning Screenwriters on Screenwriting, Hyperion, New York 2002; William Goldman, Adventures in the Screentrade, Warner Books, New York 1983; William Goldman, Which Lie did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade, Bloomsbury, London 2000. As it is very well known, most great screenwriters are Jews: for reason that I do not know -- maybe the biblical tradition of great narrative -- they seem to have a special gift in telling stories both entertaining and profound.

{11} It is a point on which there is a complete agreement among the professionals who teach screenwriting and work as consultants for many important companies: I could remember here at least the names of Robert McKee, Linda Seger, John Truby, Chris Vogler. In literature it is a statement held with special clarity by Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1983; reprint Penguin, Harmondsworth 1987 (1st ed. 1961); see also Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep. An Ethics of Fiction, University of California Press, Berkeley -- Los Angeles - London 1988. Some reflections about this question also in Gianfranco Bettetini - Armando Fumagalli, Quel che resta dei media, Angeli, Milano 1998.